Today at 0700 I spotted an open fishing boat with three men aboard about a half mile off our port bow. They soon began motoring towards us, and the usual thoughts went through my head–maybe they had something to trade, or they wanted cigarettes or fuel. Soon, though, they began waving clothing on an oar. Hmm… We were just over a hundred miles off the Columbian coast, so I began to wonder if they had any bad intentions. They were close enough at that point that I could see that they didn’t have any fishing gear in the boat. Maybe they were waving us away from a net they had out. I started the engine and roused the off-watch. We go a few more bodies on deck, and the boat was soon alongside, where they stayed, asking for water and food and waving their almost-empty fuel can.
At this point, I put out the first of many VHF calls trying to alert others in our area of our situation. The men in the boat said that they had been blown off of the coast 4 days prior and had no water or other supplies besides what was left of a the very ripe stalk of bananas that I could see in the front of their open boat. Their 70 hp outboard was now running on fumes. I passed up 3 gallons of water while Idoia passed them a dock line as a tow rope because they were shaking their empty gas can. We wanted to keep them at a little distance while we considered their situation and tried to raise help from passing ships, because at this point nobody had answered our calls, so we were feeling a bit alone out there.
We tried getting a radio relay to the coast guard from a couple of ships, but did not receive any confirmation though we managed to raise a reply from one ship. Luckily, we were able to message friends through our Iridium GO, and through the help of Jackie Mahan in the U.S. and Juan in Spain we were able to get through to the U.S. and Panamanian coast guards. We passed some food to the fishermen and settled in to wait. After a few hours of standing by with the boat in tow, we received word that a U.S. ship was on its way from Panama, as we were too far offshore for any of the Panamanian boats to render assistance.
By this time, a squall had set down on us with heavy rain, wind, and lighting, so we took the fishermen aboard Starlight, as by this time it was apparent that they really were in distress, and also help was on the way in the form of the U.S.S. Apache. We had been slowly reaching along, trying to stay more or less in the same area where we had first picked up the fishing boat, but the Apache was coming out of Balboa, so we changed course to head back to Panama to help close the distance between us and the responding ship. The wind and current were coming from their direction, which made for slow going.
It was almost dark when the Apache finally hove within sight. We put the fishermen back in their boat, gave them our contact information and a letter of introduction, and cast them off. The Apache quickly maneuvered into position and soon had the three men aboard. A short while later, their boat was hoisted on deck as well. I know that there are three very grateful men aboard the Apache tonight. I hope that we hear of their safe return home. 12 hours after first taking the fishermen alongside, we resumed our course towards Galapagos and are currently making good miles again. Our thanks to everyone involved in the rescue of those fishermen today!